Foundations and Floods
Scriptures: Matthew 7:24-27; Matthew 16:13-18
There is a story about William Gladstone, a former British Prime Minister, talking with a young man about his career plans. I have not been able to verify this story from any historical source, so it could be legend, but it was shared in a graduation speech by the President of Princeton Seminary, so I’m going to go with it. Gladstone asked the young man about his plans, and the young man replied, ‘First, I plan to complete my studies at Oxford.”
“Splendid,” replied the Prime Minister, “and what then?”
“Well, sir, I then plan to study law and become a prominent barrister.”
“Excellent,” responded Gladstone, “and what then?”
“Then I plan to stand for election and become a member of Parliament.”
“Wonderful,” said Gladsone, “and what then?”
“Then, sir, I plan to rise to prominence in the party and be appointed to a cabinet post.”
“A worthy ambition,” replied the senior statesman, “and what then?”
“O, Mr. Gladstone,” the boy blurted out self-consciously, “I plan one day to become Prime Minister and serve my Queen with the same distinction as you.”
“A noble desire, young man, and what then?”
“Well, sir, I expect that in time I will be forced to retire from public life.”
“You will indeed,” replied the Prime Minister, “and what then?”
Puzzled by the question, the young man said hesitantly, “I expect then that one day I will die.”
“Yes, you will, and what then?”
“I don’t know, sir, I have not thought any further than that.”
“Young man,” said Gladstone, “you are a fool. Go home and think your life through from its end” [Thomas Gillespie, “And What Then?” Princeton Seminary Bulletin (Nov. 2000): 279].
I thought about this story when I recalled a visit I had with an elderly woman in Spokane named Alvida. Alvida had been a widely respected member of the farming community in Reardan, just west of Spokane. She had moved into town after retirement and became an elder in our church and served on the boards of several community organizations including a group home for children with special needs. That day when I visited her she was in a nursing home under Hospice Care. Almost all of her family had gathered in her room, and she asked me to say a prayer. Before I prayed, I said, “Alvida, a lot of your family is gathered here. What would you most like to tell them.” “That I love them,” she said. Then she paused, thinking about my question, and said, “And I want them to live their lives so as always to be prepared for the day of their death.”
There was a silent shock in the room as this sank in. “I want them to live so as always to be prepared for the day of their death.” None of us, including me, had expected this bit of parting advice. But we all joined hands and I prayed that we would do as Alvida said, as Alvida did, that we would live our lives always prepared for the day of our death.
In a way, that is what Jesus’ parable urges us to do—to think through our lives from the perspective of their end. Because one day the end comes to all of us. The storm comes to everyone. That is an important point in this parable. Being wise does not exempt you from the storm, and neither does being a follower of Jesus. Sooner or later the flood waters crash in on everyone—the wise and the foolish, the good and the bad, the successful and the unsuccessful. All of us must one day face the day of our death, and most of us will suffer lesser deaths along the way—the loss of a job, the loss of a spouse, the loss of our health, disappointed dreams, disappointing relationships. In one form or other the storm beats against every door, and the question is whether the life you have built will stand or get washed away.
But notice this in the parable. The difference between the wise man and the foolish man is not their skill in building. This is not a parable about works. This is not a story of how success comes to those who are smartest or work the hardest. The difference between the wise man and foolish man is not their skill in building nor the size of the house they build. The difference is the ground on which they build, the foundation on which they base their lives. Both of them could be first rate contractors, but if they are not building on the right ground, it doesn’t matter.
And that brings me to our first scripture reading. One day Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus says to him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Then Jesus says to him, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades”—meaning the gates of death itself—“shall not prevail against it.”
So what does it mean to build our house, our lives, on the rock? In Matthew’s gospel it is clear. It means to build on Jesus. It means to anchor your life in the good news of Jesus’ forgiveness and in the hope and power of Jesus’ resurrection. That is the rock to which we can cling, when everything else gets washed away.
Which brings me to confirmation. Emma, I wish I could say that committing your life to Jesus means that everything will go well in your life. I wish I could promise that confirming your faith would guarantee you a full and healthy life with loving and committed relationships and fulfilling, productive work. But that is not what we are promised. The truth is that one day your health will fail. We hope it is not for a long time, but one day your health with fail. But when that day comes, you will stand, because your life is built on the Rock—on the good news of Jesus’ forgiveness and the hope and power of his resurrection.
And along the way their will be lesser deaths in your life: plans that don’t work out, dreams that are disappointed, relationships that in one way or another let you down. But when that happens you will stand, because your life is built on the Rock—the good news of Jesus’ forgiveness and the power and hope of his resurrection.
Harold Kushner, a Jewish rabbi, tells a story of sitting on a beach watching two children build an elaborate sand castle near the edge of the water. It had walls, gates, towers, passageways, and a moat running around it filled with water. It was a beautiful piece of work. But just as they were putting on the finishing touches a big wave crashed onto the beach, washed over the castle, then slid back into the ocean leaving behind nothing but a pile of wet sand. The rabbi said he expected the children to burst into tears, but they didn't. Instead, laughing and holding hands, they ran up the shore away from the water, sat down, and started building another sandcastle. He concluded with this observation:
I realized that they had taught me an important lesson. All the things in our lives, all the complicated structures we spend so much time and energy creating, are built on sand. Only our relationships to others endure. Sooner or later, the wave will come along and knock down what we have worked so hard to build. When that happens, only the person who has somebody's hand to hold will be able to laugh (Harold Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, p. 166).
That, I believe, is what God has given us in Jesus. Even relationships can get washed away in a storm. But Jesus is the rock to which we can cling in any flood. His is the hand we can hold when everything else in our lives is washed away. That’s what you are receiving this morning, Emma. That’s what we are all invited to receive. Jesus’ love is a rock on which we can stand in any storm, and not even death will separate us from him.